Old Sarum is located north of the city. It boasts a chequered past, beginning circa 3,000 BC, when it was merely a chalk hilltop used for seasonal gatherings and regarded with reverence by the local Neolithic peoples. Evidence suggests that around 1,500 BC it had been abandoned, although the hill was surrounded by burial mounds of local chieftains.
During the Iron Age, circa 400BC, the local Celtic people, renowned for their inter-tribal rivalry, repopulated the site and created a powerful hill fort to protect the surrounding farmland. A new gatehouse was constructed, which, although it would always be the weakest point of the fortifications, enabled them to express their identity in such ways as impaling the heads of captured rival tribesmen to ward off future attacks.
Massive earthworks were built during this period, consisting of an outer ditch 100 yards in diameter and 20 feet deep and the remodelling of the inner defences, presenting a formidable obstacle to any would-be invader. During this time the fort was known as Dun Sorvia.
When the Romans arrived, Sorvodunum, as they called it, expanded south to the River Avon, and the development of their military post saw a town flourish alongside the fortress. There was also an important road junction here that the Romans realised made this site of great strategic wealth.
After the Romans departed, it became a Saxon royal estate. By 552 AD, Britain was no longer part of the Roman Empire, and the British were heavily defeated by the Saxons at Old Sarum, which they renamed Searobyrg. In 1003, a marauding Viking army sacked nearby Wilton and the locals sought refuge at Old Sarum. Wilton’s market and Royal Mint were also moved here for safety.
By the time of William the Conqueror, who decided to reconstruct much of the fortifications in stone, Old Sarum already had endured a turbulent history.
William recognised the site for what it was – the great scale of the outer defences made it an ideal arena in which to muster his troops, and in August 1086, he summoned all of England’s most powerful landowners to Old Sarum to pledge their allegiance to him. This was a crucial moment – the Domesday Book was being compiled, a full scale Viking invasion had been narrowly averted, and William’s eldest son was in armed rebellion against him. It was never more important for the Norman King of England to be seen in all his majesty.
But all things change; the cathedral that had been built on the site, just outside the main walls, was struck by lightning very shortly after it’s completion in the late 12th century. Although a new cathedral was quickly built to replace it, the position of the Old Sarum site meant that a constant water supply was difficult to maintain for the burgeoning population, and a decision was taken to build a new cathedral in the nearby town of Salisbury, close to the river. Within months, the site was deserted and left to the elements.
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